When I heard last winter that L'etoile was moving and opening a pub as well, I started to salivate. Two of the best meals I've had in my life where at L’etoile but I wasn't sure when I'd get back again especially with a young child. Graze pub offered the chance to experience Tory Millers skill in the kitchen in a different setting with a more accessible menu. Having the space right next door to L'etoile makes this association clear even to those that don't follow the restaurant scene like myself. So when my partner and I had our first date night opportunity in months it was clear Graze was our destination. The results were unexpected in good and bad ways.
Both my partner and I had been anticipating this meal so we tried to sample as much as we could. We started with the popcorn with truffle oil. We thought it was a great value for $3 and more than just a cutesy take on bar food. I almost ordered a second basket that we would have bagged up for the movie we went to later that night. We also ordered the cheese curds as a starter, and while you’d want to compare them to The Old Fashioned down the street they are really two different varieties. The squeaky Sassy Cow cheese was battered and fried in a way that reminded me of the Minnesota State Fair (these are the pinnacle of cheese curds in my mind). While we were tempted by more fried goodness in the form of panko crusted onion rings, we wisely moved onto our next course. My partner went with the Graze burger which somehow justified its $19 price tag. The mixture of quality meats (short ribs, sirloin, ribeye) was identifiable and not lost when covered with the perfectly cooked caramelized onions. She also declared the fries the best she’s had in Madison (at least in the frites category). I had a very hard time disagreeing with that and wondered about setting up a taste test with Brassiere V. I wanted pig but instead of the pork done three ways I went with the mac and cheese topped with pulled pork. I’ve read some food columns decrying the overabundance of “gourmet” mac but this is a trend I hope never dies. The Graze variety out does both The Old Fashioned and Vintage Brewery which had held my top spots. The 10-year-old Hook’s cheddar is certainly no small part of that. The pulled pork initially felt out of place but as I ate more the flavors really blended nicely. We were too stuffed for dessert but the sundae that went by almost changed our mind. Despite the $19 burger we both agreed that Graze is a great value. The portions were large and the prices were more than reasonable. Our total tab was under $50 which seemed to fall in line with similarly designed restaurants and the meal was absolutely amazing.
I love the space but I'm not sure if it fits this concept. The high ceiling and abundant natural light made for a warm dining room. The chairs tables and booths have a similar warmness to them. My favorite touch is the lanterns at the end of the booth that counter some of the modern elements. Still while the design elements are all done well I felt like I was in the wrong place. For example I don't think you should feel bad when dropping popcorn on the floor but that was my initial reaction. Also while the beautiful bar space was certainly hoping by the time we left, it doesn't seem to invite any long-term visits despite very decent tap prices. There's a flat screen too and I find it hard to believe that will get much use especially when compared to say Cooper's or The Old Fashioned. I'm sure going back later at night would give me a different impression but my first was one was not of a cohesive space.
The space also tied into our first impressions of the service. You can enter through the shared front corridor for L'etoile and Graze or off the patio like we did. A server held the door for us but once we were in it took a moment to find the host stand and several moments for the hostess to find us. While the patio had a decent crowd upon arrival the dining area had only one or two tables full so you'd think our entrance would be heard but it wasn't until we were right on top of her that we were greeted. Our server seemed to be covering too many tables, which is not her fault, but it also doesn't excuse everything. The gaffes included drink orders (diet Cokes) that took too long, no water refills until a manager noticed and dropped off a carafe for us (very appreciated), and a very long wait between ordering apps and entrees. It wasn't until the table behind us was seated with a different server that we heard there were specials and a full explanation of the menu concept and that was almost more troubling. In the end it was one night and the place has only been open a month but if you're cashing in on the L'etoile pedigree then you're facing high expectations when it comes to service. My partner made the point that while L'etoile is fine dining she felt so welcomed and cared for it was like she was in someone’s home. Here at Graze you have a more comforting menu and concept but service that felt like it belonged in an overpriced chain.
Despite the mixed feelings on the space and the poor service, the food certainly demands we revisit Graze. I think we may have hit a bad night but another one of those and I'm not sure that even this food can sustain my business.
Graze, 1 S PINCKNEY ST, MADISON, WI, 608.251.2700